Among Believers

Lunenburg 27Jn16_02977B

Lunenburg, Nova Scotia

Our worship service was a bit different last Sunday. It involved seven people balanced on the edges of beds or on hard chairs in a small hotel room in St. John’s, New Brunswick. We came from three different countries and four different faiths.

What the seven of us had in common was belief in Jesus Christ and a desire to worship Him on the Sabbath. We met in that hotel room at the invitation of a Presbyterian minister from Illinois traveling with our tour group. He followed the order of worship he would have followed at his pulpit back home that day.

Those of us in that room could have found doctrinal differences, I am sure, if we had chosen to discuss them. Instead, what we found together was comfort in the knowledge that through the Lord Jesus Christ we all may be forgiven of our sins and become better followers of His.

In several cities during this trip, my wife and I have seen many people who appear to be wandering aimlessly in life. They seem to know how to fill their days with activity, but not how to fill their lives with growth and useful experiences.

Lunenburg 27Jn16_02991BAnd yet we have met others who find fulfillment in giving of themselves. In our tour group, these included the outdoorsman who has spent many years in lifesaving on Australian beaches, and the teacher who uses music to help young people through their educational and emotional struggles. The minister and his wife are also among those people who purposefully give to others. While he and I might have differences on theological themes, I have to admire his willingness to share the knowledge of God with others. In that he is an example to me.

In high school, an agnostic friend of mine once said that Hell is every church’s gift to every other church. He was too cynical, I think, and too inexperienced to see how good can draw people together no matter what their backgrounds. I believe in a loving, caring Heavenly Father who will reward every one of His Children for the good we do, no matter what church we attend.

On a personal level, some doctrinal differences matter very much to me. I dare not minimize the principles of faith to which I am committed. Belief in those principles has shaped every crucial decision in my life. Trying to live those principles is making me a better disciple of Christ. I will hold them dear even as many in the world abandon them, and even if my beliefs are challenged and mocked.

Lunenburg 27Jn16_02982BBut I do not believe that God reserves His blessings only for those who share my doctrinal views and my church affiliation. Experience teaches that there are many upstanding people of other churches—or of no church—who are intent on doing good to those around them. Surely God will answer the prayers of any of His children who desire righteousness. Often we mortals simply need to work on understanding the wisdom of His answer, be it “Yes,” “No,” or “Follow the counsel I have already given in my holy scriptures.” Sometimes the answer may be, “Are you ready to follow the direction I will give you through my Holy Spirit?” Jesus Christ wasn’t just leading us on when He taught that if we ask in faith, we will receive (Matthew 21:22).

So on a Sunday far from home, we were grateful to be among a group of believers—people who believe in asking for His blessings, and who have the faith to receive.

Caught in the Rush-hour Traffic of Life

Crawling along in stop-and-go rush-hour traffic, covering less than 15 miles in an hour, provokes some interesting thoughts. The first is, “I’m never coming back to this place. How can people have lives here if they have to commute like this every day?”
Another thought is that people caught in this colossal waste of time are indifferent to anyone outside the small enclosures of their vehicles, or worse, they are angry at anyone in their way. For example, the woman in the next car is busily texting while she creeps along. The guy in the plumbing truck behind us makes angry faces and gestures because I’m not going fast enough for him, and finally finds a way to creep past us on the side. The guy in the Mercedes weaving in and out of traffic cuts people off and risks involving others in an accident just so he can pull a couple of cars ahead.
Nope. I’m never coming back to Boston again.
But I shouldn’t blame Boston for this. I’ve been in similar situations in Los Angeles, San Francisco, São Paulo, London, Tokyo, and Accra. I’m not trying to drop names here; the point is that in today’s world, clogged traffic like this is a common human experience.
And where are we really when we’re all stuck in traffic?
In Tokyo, I saw a mother and daughter come out of a subway train walking side by side, each furiously texting someone else. If one had disappeared, I’m not sure the other would have known.
How often am I, and how often are you, self-absorbed like that? How often are we oblivious to anything outside our small enclosure of personal space?
I could not undertake to judge any of the people I saw in that situation. Maybe the woman texting in traffic was multi-tasking—arranging an activity for her daughter’s school or keeping in touch with a son home alone. Maybe the man in the plumbing truck was in a rush to get to someone’s broken water line. Maybe the man weaving through traffic had a family emergency.
And if I can’t judge the people around me, what should I be doing with my time? Maybe I ought to be thinking about how I could reach out to others.
That was part of the miracle of the life of Jesus Christ. He knew and tried to meet the needs of others around him, no matter His own needs or wants.
If I want to think of myself as one of His followers, perhaps I need to break out of the walls of my own little enclosure and think about how I could help others get through the stop-and-go traffic of life.

Remembering Those Who Served

Hand on wallMy mother’s older brother was in Pearl Harbor the day it was bombed. “I was running along Battleship Row while they [the Japanese] were sinking them,” he wrote in a one-page account I found in my mother’s papers after she died. When the attack started, Uncle Eddie had been sent to shore in a motor launch to fetch the officers for his ship; he had to swim for his life when shrapnel blew a hole in the bow of the launch.

My father, like many young men his age, felt the call to serve and joined the Navy in early 1942. He, two of his brothers, and my mother’s two brothers all served during the war. One fought his way across Europe with the infantry. One was a bombardier over Europe. One served with an Allied force in Russia. My father was accepted in Officers Candidate School and was commissioned an ensign on the day I was born. There is some strange irony, I suppose, in the fact that he saw less combat action than the others, then was killed in a car accident only a few months after coming home to civilian life when the war ended.

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I grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s with a stron
g sense of gratitude for what they had sacrificed to make the world safer for my generation.

I knew veterans who served in Korea. I had friends who fought, and in two cases died, in Vietnam. I know others who have fought in wars since then. Many of them don’t get the respect they deserve for their willingness to sacrifice in defense of liberty—their own and that of others. Many who came home from Vietnam were treated cruelly and shamefully by people who should have celebrated their safe return.

Let it be clear that I am not saying we should celebrate war, in victory or loss. War is a terrible failure of the human spirit on the grandest scale. It is a great evil that ought to be eliminated. It is often brought on by evil in the arrogant, grasping hearts of those who crave power. Wars may be justified at times by patriots, but the combat is frequently mismanaged and manipulated by misguided politicians who ought to bear at least some of 3 GIsthe blame for the waste of lives. While others may disagree, I have come to see the war we fought in Vietnam in that light.

But I have deep respect for the veterans who fought it. They served no matter their feelings about the conflict and its causes. Like my father and his generation, they were willing to put everything on the line when their country needed them. Those who have served in the Middle East and Afghanistan have seen their duty clear even when the cause might have been murky.

Let us honor them—all of them—equally for their courage and sacrifice. It does not matter in which conflict they gave “the last full measure of devotion,” to quote Mr. Lincoln at BinghamGettysburg. Whether they laid down their lives on the battlefield or came home to continue contributing in civilian life, we owe them our thanks and respect. No one should question their devotion to freedom. They stepped up when they were called. For that alone, we owe them thanks.

That is what I will be thinking about this Memorial Day.

 

“It’s a Matter of Perspective”

How many times have you heard the saying? Some lessons in life and some insights do indeed depend on your perspective.

COB Flower 12My16_00180Those who know me know that I always carry a small, good quality camera with me, especially when Mrs. S. and I are out walking or traveling. (My children would be surprised to see Dad without a camera.) This way, I can capture moments that may come only once.

Yesterday, the flower in front of the downtown office building, spotlighted by the sun, made such a moment. It was another of so many wonderful gifts from Heavenly Father, who has the scientific expertise to design complex, interlocking ecosystems that support life on earth and who endows them with beauty at the same time.

The impact of the flower when I saw it was momentarily stunning—arresting. I was on my way to a meeting, but had to stop and take time to savor this gift.

From the perspective in this photo, the flower is beautiful. If I were to blow up the photo, you would easily see that the flower has tiny imperfections and small damaged spots. But why focus on those? Why not enjoy the effect of the whole?

Why not look at things as Heavenly Father, or our Savior Jesus Christ, would see them? Do we not each hope that Jesus, who paid such an excruciating price to own us as our Redeemer, will see us as the whole that we can be rather than focusing on the many imperfections we carry? Indeed, through Him, the imperfections can be erased if we put our roots down into His doctrine and accept the light of His Atonement in our lives.

Ducks 13My16_00188On this morning’s walk, I literally “got my ducks in a row” in one photograph. Disturbed by our near approach, the ducks formed up and followed their leader to what they considered safer ground. It was a metaphor captured in megabytes. It reminds me of the Savior’s comment that He would gather His followers as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings to protect them, if only we would follow. What is there in our lives that prevents us from following? Can we get that obstacle out of the way?

Duckling 13My16_00196One fuzzy little duckling we noticed on this morning’s walk was having trouble making its way around the large rocks on the lake’s shore. For the duckling, they were huge boulders. It would have been no great difficulty to move the rocks out of the way—but would that have benefited the duckling? Sometimes I think Heavenly Father watches lovingly as we labor with obstacles in our lives. He knows that this will help us learn and grow stronger. He wants us to ask His help. When we do, He may not remove the boulders in our path, but He will surely guide us as we learn to overcome them. The trials that may be painful for us now will bring blessings in the end. I do not say this just to dismiss difficulties with a platitude. I have had my share of painful trials, but I have lived long enough now to see some of the blessings that have come out of them.

So many things truly are a matter of perspective. We look, but are we seeing the whole picture?

 

 

What Mother Means

Marie 3Ja16_00359S2

The mother of our children, with four of her five.

Mother—a word for female parent, something we all have.

But in our hearts and minds, the word is defined by “my mother”—the one we each know.

My mother was a strong, resilient woman dealt a bad hand by fate, if you will—widowed at 24. She had to do the parenting work of two, and I wasn’t especially easy. I’m sure God made her equal to the task. She had to take it on in an era when biological motherhood didn’t necessarily convey any legal rights; those she had to establish in court. I learned much from her strength as she made her way through what was essentially a man’s world.

My mother got much of her strength from her own mother, a woman with the courage and firmness to uphold what was right in this life, no matter what, or who, the opposition. She was not one to back down on matters of principle, and when she drew herself up to her full four-foot-ten and articulated what she knew to be true, people listened. By force of will she lived a normal life for more than 40 years while struggling with challenges of health that some could have found disabling.

From my father’s mother, I learned about the power of love. She had more than enough for seven children—six sons, and much later a daughter, born when Grandma was nearing fifty. To the end of her life, she would worry about whether she might have done more for two children who chose paths not congenial with their upbringing. In her late eighties, dealing with heart problems, she was always looking for ways she could do more for the “girls” in the neighborhood—meaning the other widows who were only in their sixties or seventies. She was the white-haired grandma from a Norman Rockwell painting, with warm bread just out of the oven and her own special recipe cookies in the old Rex lard can that served as a cookie bucket. All the grandchildren knew exactly where to find it when they came. It was the inheritance I chose first from her house after she died.

The wonderful, beautiful woman that I married came of industrious, faithful pioneer stock like my grandmother’s family. My wife did not have living grandmothers, so she adopted mine. For the first fifteen years of our marriage, we spent a lot of time helping Grandma Searle, and my wife grew to admire her.

With time, my wife has grown to be like her. Now my wife is the white-haired grandma with cookies or other treats when the grandkids come, a grandma who can be counted on for comfort when a day has gone badly, and the woman who focuses on how she can help others around her.

I have no doubt that Heavenly Father very carefully chose His daughter Eve, a strong, loving, and wise woman, to be the mother of us all. She is unfairly characterized as weak for a transgression in the Garden of Eden. It took a powerful and exemplary woman to live with the consequences of her decision. I think Heavenly Father chose her for the role because she had so many of the essential qualities that He wanted His children to inherit. She was the perfect complement to all the strengths He saw in His son Adam.

I see in my wife many of the fine qualities that I’m sure were present in Mother Eve. My wife has been the best companion and mother to our children that I could ever have chosen.

She will deny it, of course, and protest that she is not perfect. Maybe not, but in my heart I know that she is a lot closer than I. The children that Heavenly Father sent to our home could not have had a better mother. I often hope that they are wise enough to realize this. When they were younger and they asked what she wanted for a birthday, Christmas, or Mother’s Day, she answered, “Good children.” Now she has them—children to be proud of.

Every man should be able to feel that his wife is the best mother in the world. If he does not, Mother’s Day would be a good day to reevaluate his relationship with her and weigh all that she has done for him and their children. No mortal mother is perfect, of course—just as no mortal father is perfect. But this life is all about becoming—becoming what Heavenly Father knew we could be when He sent us here. The man who can see divinity in the mother of his children is getting a glimpse of her eternal destiny.

 

 

The Sidewalk to Nowhere

DSC00110Mrs. S. and I love to explore the places where we are, so we do a lot of walking. In our new neighborhood, we recently discovered the sidewalk to nowhere. It begins across the street from our granddaughters’ school and curves off along a canal into a large, vacant tract of land.

The whole area is still under development, but what, we wondered, is the purpose of this sidewalk? What is its destination? So one day we decided to follow it.

The sidewalk runs along that stagnant canal and through an area that has become a DSC00114dumping ground for excavated dirt, and trash and debris. There is a hint at least of clandestine activity out here—discarded beer and liquor bottles, and broken, abandoned things. Stolen, perhaps? Is that why there’s an abandoned grocery cart in the canal?

The sidewalk ends in the dirt (or mud, in season) about 50 yards from a back street in an industrial area.

Is this walkway part of some developmental master plan? Who knows. Right now, it’s just a useless side trip.

This path makes me wonder how many sidewalks to nowhere there are in my life.

When I choose to do something that I know God does not want me to do—when I sin willfully—I know I am taking the sidewalk to nowhere. The path is going to end in disappointment and worthless trash, and I run the risk of getting lost, unable to find my way back.

DSC00113But what about the times when I simply have not thought out my course? Would I choose this path if I knew from the beginning that I would find only trash along the way and a nasty mud hole at the end?

What about the times when I set out on the path to acquiring more money or things? Has that ever ended in any lasting happiness?

What about the times when I set out to justify myself? “I was right and she was wrong.” “That other driver was a careless jerk.” “What I should have said to him was . . . .” There’s nothing worthwhile at the end of that path.

What about the times when my attitude was, “Father, I can handle this by myself”? When did that ever turn out well?

Standing here at the beginning, I can choose to follow this path, or I can turn to the right or left on one of the routes that lead to places of fulfillment—places where I can learn, and love, and be with family. They will be places where I can serve, instead of simply passing time.

If I choose the right path, ultimately it will take me Home.

The best way to choose is probably to ask myself, “Which path would the Master follow after saying, ‘Come, follow me’?”

 

 

 

How Good Are You?

Matt 548

We live in a world that beats us down. We are surrounded by forces that tend to make us feel small and worthless sometimes. In this kind of world, it’s important that we learn to recognize good—especially the good within ourselves.

Granted, we all fall short of perfection. It is part of our mortal condition. We have weaknesses that we surrender to all too easily, and we have help in our failures, because none of us is strong enough by ourselves to stand up to the devil one on one.

I believe in a real devil—the personage we call Satan. He exists, and he hates every one of us on earth because we enjoy the privilege of living here in mortality—a privilege he lost by rebellion before we came here. The devil will do anything to make us miserable as he is.

It is in his best interest for people not to believe in him. That way he can work without our being aware of his influence. If he confronted us directly, many would resist being manipulated. It is better for him if he can simply whisper to us, inviting us to indulge in the weaknesses that he knows we have.

Usually we fall into sin without thinking about the end result. That is why we need Jesus Christ and the grace He offers.

“Be ye perfect,” He said in the sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:48). Would He give us a commandment that is impossible? No. But it is important that we understand all the things “perfect” may mean. The Greek word in the biblical text means complete, or fully developed. We might say this means being of full integrity—endeavoring always to practice what we say we believe. We may not reach this level all the time, but we are expected to try. Jesus forgave the woman caught in adultery—a sin worthy of death under the Mosaic law—and then He said to her, “Go, and sin no more.” That is what is expected of each of us.John 811

We have sinned in the past, and we will continue to struggle and fall. Because of this, we would be eternally lost without the grace of Christ. But He expects us to get up and try again.

Why would He willingly suffer and die for our sins? Because it was a commitment He made before coming to earth? Yes. But there was something more. He saw enough good in each of us to feel we are worth saving. Despite all of the times that we fail, He loves us.

It is important to see the good in ourselves without becoming proud of it. In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis explained that the way for the devil to distract us from doing good is to get us to stop and pat ourselves on the back for it. We need to find the balance that lets us recognize good within ourselves while we still plead to God for the forgiveness He offers through the grace of His Beloved Son. No matter how much good we might do, that grace is still essential to our salvation.

When we find the good within ourselves, this will help us understand how to heed His repeated admonitions to “go, and do” (Luke 10:37) and to “follow me” (Matthew 9:9, 10:38). In what shall we follow Him? In doing the kind of works that He did. The good and strength within us can be used to lift others. (See Hebrews 12:12.)

You have many weaknesses. When the devil tells you that you are no good because of them, or when you cringe at the unworthiness within yourself, you must remember that you also have strengths.

So here is today’s thought to ponder as you try to take up your cross and follow Him: How good are you?